Until fairly recently, when people wanted cakes, cookies, croissants, cobblers, pastries, pies, popovers, muffins, or mille-feuilles, they had absolutely no expectation that the item in question would be anything other than a decadent, high-calorie treat. Today, though, the health-conscious diner who still loves baked treats finds himself with myriad options. Whether you’re at a big-box retail store or the corner bakery, the convenience store or the café, you’re virtually assured of finding baked goods that meet any number of dietary restrictions or criteria: gluten-free, fat-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, soy-free, vegan, low-cal, low-glycemic… the list goes on.

As awareness of the importance of good health and nutrition has increased, millions of people have responded not by eschewing these sweet, chewy delights altogether, but by finding ways to enjoy the baked goods they love with modifications that make the items relatively guilt-free, permissible indulgences.

Traditionally, the way makers of baked goods addressed customers’ desire for healthier options was to remove or replace the offending ingredient, be it sugar, wheat flour, lard, vegetable oil, or lactose. But now, rather than simply taking stuff out to make their baked goods healthier, we’re seeing more artisan bakers and large-scale commercial bakeries alike putting more stuff in—namely healthful, functional ingredients.

From sprouted, fermented, and ancient grains to nut and legume flours, seeds, vegetable purées, turmeric, chlorophyll, unrefined sugars, and other novel sweeteners, there is no shortage of nutritious or functional additions that can be used to give a makeover to anything from a blond brownie to a babka. Indeed, the trend toward healthier baked goods has given rise to a whole host of establishments looking to capitalize on cautious indulgence-seekers’ yen for sweets.

At The Protein Bakery in New York, for example, you can treat yourself to an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie or an espresso brownie with cappuccino chips, both of which are free of trans fats and wheat flour but packed with added protein. At the Alvarado Street Bakery in Petaluma, California, guests can order sprouted-wheat and coffee-flour bread. (Coffee flour, incidentally, is among the red-hot baking ingredients of the moment. It essentially consists of dried coffee cherry—the typically discarded portion of the plant—ground into a powder that lends a touch of caffeine and sweetness to baked goods.)

The trend isn’t strictly coastal, either. At Bear and the Honey Specialty Bakery in Phoenix, you can order a paleo snickerdoodle cookie made with almond flour and rolled in a coconut sugar blend; meanwhile, the Beet Box bakery in Denver offers vegan muffins, scones, cakes, and brownies made with whole, largely organic ingredients, according to the establishment’s website.

Then there’s the other side of the spectrum.

It’s a long way from beet sugar, nut flours, and sprouted grains to the realm of truly decadent desserts. But as befits a society that’s both increasingly health-conscious and hell-bent on eating for pure pleasure, there is a not-insignificant flip side to the healthy indulgence trend. 

A significant contributor to the popularity of totally over-the-top desserts is consumers’ desire for comfort, escapism, and pure pleasure. They don’t just want a rich, satisfying piece of pie or cake; they want something so tempting, so mouthwatering, so utterly outrageous that it needs to be captured photographically and shared with friends (and possibly strangers, too) on Instagram.

One of the notable trends I’m seeing nowadays is the tendency of crafty bakers and pastry chefs to create the baking equivalent of the zombie cocktail—that is, they use often counterintuitive ingredient combinations to achieve a kind of synergistic effect. So it’s no surprise to see potato chips, corn flakes, marshmallows, cake and cookie crumbs, pretzels, nut-butter frostings, caramelized fruits, and pastry fillings that mimic the taste of famous, roundly adored treats popping up at bakeries nationwide. Oreo-cookie fillings, Froot Loop fillings, fillings that approximate the taste of a Snickers bar—all of these super-indulgent confections, cookies, cereals, and snacks can be leveraged as ingredients and made to enliven even the most pedestrian of treats. 

At the Fluff Bake Bar in Houston, for instance, the popular Unicorn Bait cookie consists of a traditional sugar cookie baked with birthday cake crumbs and sprinkles. At Bake in Chicago, the brownie nut pie comes stuffed with almonds, pecans, and walnuts. And the Loop in Westminster, California, takes things to even more creative heights with its “Glazed Speculoop”—a white-chocolate-glazed churro loop with cookie crumbs and cookie butter drizzle—and its Glazed Matcha Crunch, a matcha-glazed churro loop adorned with Fruity Pebbles. Matcha, incidentally, is a green tea purported to be loaded with antioxidants.

As you can see, dear reader, the options for experimentation and discovery on both ends of the baked-goods spectrum are many and varied. I’d be interested in hearing what you come up with. Drop me a line at marc@qsrmagazine.com.

Breakfast, Marc Halperin: Resident F&B Expert, Menu Innovations, Story